Why a design mindset matters

Engineers become engineers because they like to figure out how things fit together, literally and figuratively. This is not always entirely true, but usually. The lines are blurring between traditional engineers who make designs real and the designers who can now “engineer.” Technology is now allowing anyone with a design mindset to engineer a solution.

Organizations are trying to embrace design thinking, or some version of it, as they look to solve problems. Stanford’s d.school draws a continuously evolving circle that starts with empathy: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test (and keep iterating, moving around that circle).

My point is not to focus on design thinking methods specifically, but to realize that design is far more than engineering, or product development or marketing. Many organizations, from large corporations to government agencies, from startup businesses (and their venture capital backers) to schools from K-12 through the university level, are shifting to a design mindset.

George Kemble, director and co-founder of the d.school at Stanford University, is an entrepreneur and investor turned educator. In a TEDx SemesterAtSea talk, There is No Leader, he explains how in emergent systems there is no leader; how schools of fish or flocks of birds do not answer to any one creature. They respond based on observation and small changes. At the heart of his talk is design thinking, which forms the core of the method at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (commonly called d.school).

The master of design

Before design thinking was a term, one of the world’s most innovative architects, Frank Gehry, was doing it. He designed the uniquely shaped Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Sydney University of Technology “paper bag” business school building in Australia, to name a couple. Years ago, I went to see him. He invited me into his warehouse where he had cardboard blocks, wooden blocks, plastic and foam; he was inventing, prototyping, using real materials. But he told me that before he ever uses a software program, he needs to come up with his idea.

The idea, or dozens of them, for Gehry came from thinking differently, but with some respect for order. He was showing me that the conceptual phase is not assisted by computers (at that time). Creating a model in cardboard takes a lot of time and there is no flexibility to be creative. You don’t get easy answers out of a cardboard model — like what is the square footage, what is the area, the volume, how many people can go there, can you simulate a hurricane or how do you illuminate it? So, you have to be able to move from physical to digital, and the reverse is true also.

I’m like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It goes over there, and he jumps over there. It falls on the floor, and he goes there. I’m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesn’t, and then I try again. When it looks like something I’ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition. — Frank Gehry

Many people believe that design only begins when you put pen to paper, make something out of cardboard or, more likely, when a digital model takes shape in 3D design software. These can all be important.

But design really starts when we free peoples’ minds from the constraint of any program — when the software operates as an aid and not a hindrance so the user can move more thoughtfully through the creation process. When this type of freedom occurs, innovation is more likely to happen. Great design is possible when the digital tools are there to help, to assist (to aid) without getting in the way.

There will be an increase in the number of designers in tech that emerge from engineering majors. Back in the ’90s, as an MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science grad, I always knew that designers with engineering backgrounds were rare because I was the odd duck. At the close of this decade, we will be seeing more designers with an engineering background… — John Maeda, design partner at venture firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers

As d.school and design firms move in this direction of new ways to solve problems, companies are acknowledging that they also need a fresh way to address challenges. It does not matter what type of business you are part of, you must understand the problems people face and find creative ways to solve them. In this mobile-powered world we live in, design tools are like the clothing you wear — you don’t think about how they are made, you just put them on.

Those blurring lines between engineering and design are possible now because of powerful technology tools, enabled by the cloud and mobile. Add in more elegant methods, such as design thinking, and you get a proverbial “future of design” tipping point. As John Maeda implies, a design mindset is possible no matter what university degree you have, technical or not. The future of design is about tools that are in the background, like the clothes you wear, so that you can think and create without boundaries.